Series following a year in the life of schools in Damascus. 17-year-old sisters Farah and Rahaf are facing exams - success or failure will determine their futures.
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Damascus, Syria -
the oldest capital on Earth.
We're following four very different schools in Damascus,
from rural primary...
to smart city girls' secondary.
For 40 years, Syria has been dominated by a single party,
and there is limited political freedom.
But here in Damascus, life is changing,
especially for the next generation.
Now, at the end of the school year,
it's time to plan ahead.
But to move to the next stage, first you have to pass exams.
Farah and Rahaf are twins, facing the dreaded baccalaureate.
Iraqi refugee Yusif has given up on his exams,
hoping he'll strike lucky with a visa to move abroad.
And Ammar has his sights set
on becoming Syria's national champion Pioneer in agriculture.
In Damascus, it's exam season.
and everyone's future is riding on it.
RADIO: 'This is Mix FM...Syria.'
'Oh, yeah! Whassup? Exams, exams, exams!
'Bet you're all out revising. It's time to take your break
-'and listen to this.
-Mix FM Syria! Proud to be Syrian!'
There are two months to go until the critical baccalaureate exams.
At the prestigious Zaki al-Arsuzi High School, it's parents' evening.
Headmistress Amal Hassan is setting the agenda.
Compared with a generation ago, many more Syrian women are making it to university.
It's a high-pressure time for students...
and their parents.
Amal is anxious that her students don't fail her.
Even with the baccalaureate looming large,
the girls at Zaki al-Arsuzi aren't only concerned about exams.
17-year-old Farah is the top arts student in her year.
She's revising in Mr Ahmed's philosophy class.
It's one of the eight subjects she'll be examined on in her forthcoming baccalaureate.
Farah has a twin sister, Rahaf, also at the same school.
She's a science major, aiming for a degree in engineering,
and very different to her twin.
In a few months, they'll both take their baccalaureate.
Failure rates are high - 20% of students have to retake,
and passing alone isn't enough.
Students need a high enough mark to get into their chosen course.
Every year it gets more competitive.
Down the corridor, in Rahaf's physics class,
there's cause for a brief moment of celebration.
But in other classes,
the pressure is starting to show. Head teacher Amal Hassan is on hand.
For decades, Syria was relatively closed to the West.
Satellite receivers are still supposedly banned,
but they've sprung up everywhere. For Farah,
set on studying English at university, satellite television
is a study aid as well as a window to the wider world.
And to improve her English, she's got her twin sister
to help her recreate her favourite British TV show.
I promise you,
Farah tabouleh will be so delicious - more better than Nigella Lawson cake.
Sorry, Nigella! And let's go to buy the ingredients. Let's go.
But for Farah, it's not about being a domestic goddess.
An English degree offers her the best chance
for the future she's hoping for.
Despite dreams of becoming a doctor,
the twins' mother, Hanadi, got married in her teens and didn't take her baccalaureate.
Like Nigella Lawson,
I have a plate just for me.
Really, really good.
Where the city of Damascus meets the surrounding farmland
lies Mleiha Rural Primary School.
Every year, all primary schools nationwide take part
in Syria's National Pioneer competition
run by the youth wing of the Ba'ath Party, the ruling party in Syria.
It searches out the smartest and most talented six to ten-year-olds.
There are seven national finalists at the school.
Ammar is one of the stars.
With the National Pioneer final only two weeks away,
there's no break for the brainy.
Ammar comes from a long line of farmers.
He'll be representing Damascus Countryside District at the final
in his chosen subject of agriculture.
He'll be pitted against the top Agriculture Pioneer
from each of Syria's 14 regions.
He's banking on his insider knowledge.
HE CLUCKS LIKE A HEN
HE BRAYS LIKE A DONKEY
Ammar lives on the farm with his 13 cousins and their families.
Whether or not he's good enough
to be one of the nation's next Agriculture Pioneers will be decided
at the organisation's forthcoming summer camp.
In the meantime,
He's perfecting his agricultural skills with his teacher.
At the camp,
he must present a plant he's grown himself and know it inside out.
Since the war began in Iraq, over one million Iraqi refugees
have entered Syria,
many ending up in the crowded Damascus suburb of Jaramana.
All Iraqis are offered basic healthcare and free education
by the Syrian government.
At Jaramana Boys' Middle School, 300 of the 500 students are Iraqi,
and the school is way over normal capacity.
Looking out for the Iraqi students is school counsellor, Salma.
She's worried about an Iraqi student who's been playing truant
for three weeks.
Yusif had been a top student in Iraq,
but now his focus is elsewhere.
Yusif is 15.
When he was 10, his eldest brother was murdered by a militia in Baghdad
and the family fled.
But like many Iraqis in Syria, Yusif is in limbo.
Yusif's family has been told
that they should be receiving a Canadian visa,
but it's been five years and still no sign.
Yusif's running out of patience.
After three weeks of bunking off, Yusif's back at school...
with his mum.
Salma has called him in to explain his decision to quit class.
It's the first time that Yusif has failed his classes.
At Mleiha Rural Primary School,
a VIP is arriving to open their annual exhibition.
It's a stressful time for the staff.
The National Pioneer finalists have been given the important role
of presenting a selection of their work to the local Ba'ath Party leader.
Although the boys don't know exactly who it is they're meeting,
they can tell it's a big deal.
Primary school is the first rung
on the ladder of a child's academic and political education in Syria.
All students from the age of six to ten
are automatically members of the Pioneer Ba'ath organisation.
Party approval is important for school prestige.
The local leader arrives
to see the boys' work.
He begins at Pioneer Wassim's cardboard castle.
While his fellow students give exemplary answers,
Ammar gets missed out in the commotion.
But he knows that getting noticed
at the forthcoming National Pioneer Final
is the real springboard to success.
At Jaramana, Salma's encouragement has paid off.
Yusif is back in class.
As a result of the war in Iraq,
Yusif fell two years behind in school,
but hope of a fresh start in Canada
means renewed interest in studying.
But Yusif's new-found diligence is not convincing everyone.
Yusif isn't the only Iraqi student counting on a visa
to set up his future.
Many of his schoolmates are also on the waiting list.
The longer they stay in limbo in Syria,
the harder it's becoming to see a future worth studying for.
RADIO: 'This is Mix FM Syria.
'What's going on, students?
'Truth of the matter is, where there's a will, there's a way.
'As long as you apply yourself, it can be done.
'Mix FM Syria, proud to be Syrian.'
Across Damascus, baccalaureate fever has begun.
Herbalists sell special concoctions.
Fortune tellers are fully booked.
It seems only the grave can offer peace.
There are only eight hours to go till Farah and Rahaf
and a quarter of a million other students in Syria
start their first baccalaureate exam.
'All right, baccalaureate students, it's finally here - make or break day.
'We'll be thinking of you here at Mix FM.
'Best of luck to all of you.
'Mix FM Syria.
'Proud to be Syrian.'
The girls have been up all night and are still trying to cram.
They have a total of 29 books to study between them.
In comparison with ten years ago,
twice as many Syrians are sitting the baccalaureate exam today.
This is only one of Farah's eight exams.
As a science student, Rahaf has nine more papers to go.
'Sun is out, exams are over.
'Forget your books and enjoy the sunny time.
'Mix FM Syria, proud to be Syrian.'
For primary school pupils it's the summer holiday,
and after five months of training,
Ammar and his friends are finally on their way
to the National Pioneer Competition.
It's the first time that Ammar has been away from home.
Shepherding the boys is Waleed...
..a teacher at Mleiha Primary and a trained Ba'ath Pioneer leader.
The three-day camp is situated in the city of Homs
in central Syria.
The competition will decide the National Pioneer champion.
The initial 1.5 million competitors nationwide
have been whittled down to the brightest 1,400 boys and girls.
Everything at the camp comes free of charge
courtesy of the Ba'ath Pioneer organisation.
Camp life embodies socialist principles,
starting with a shared identity.
The Pioneer organisation was created in 1974
After the former president of Syria visited North Korea.
He was greeted by singing crowds of children
and decided to create a similar organisation in Syria.
BAND PLAYS A ROUSING TUNE
This year the competition camp has changed its name to Competition Resort
to reflect its less military approach.
In Syria and Iraq,
Yusif has always dreamed of becoming a professional footballer.
A Canadian visa could bring him closer to his goal.
In Baghdad, Yusif had been about to showcase his skills
to Dutch talent scouts.
His brother's murder meant the family fled before he had a chance.
At the National Pioneer Competition, Syria's first astronaut
and national hero, Mohammed Fares, has come to rally the Pioneers.
In 1974, travelling in a Russian spacecraft,
he released a vial of Damascus soil
and a poster of Syria's president into outer space.
The boys are inspired,
but tomorrow's Pioneer Competition looms near.
At Jaramana School, it's Yusif's final end of year exam.
He needs to score 50%
to make it through to Syrian eighth grade next term,
but he's hoping that by then he'll be in Canada.
In Syria, Yusif's built a close friendship
with his fellow Iraqi classmates,
based on their shared past and uncertain future.
Like every end of term for the past five years,
Yusif is sure this one's his last in Syria.
Salma's job is done.
She's turned things round for Yusif
who, just two months ago, had dropped out of school.
The baccalaureate is over for Farah and Rahaf,
but the spectre of results hangs over their holiday.
Rahaf believes she's had a vision foretelling her results.
So, to get a bit of certainty,
the twins have gone to have it interpreted.
But the dream reader has less encouragement for Farah.
It's 7am -
competition day at the Ba'ath Pioneer Resort.
Most Pioneers are already up and preparing,
but Ammar is asleep.
VOICE ON LOUDSPEAKER
The Cardboard Model Pioneers, Imad and Wassim,
will be challenged to construct a model in nine hours.
Ammar and his plant are late for their debut.
The boys are competing against the best in the country,
but Imad isn't intimidated.
There are over 40 subjects, from biology and computing
to recycled art and engineering.
Less than a decade ago, all jobs with the state
were only given to Ba'ath Party members.
This is no longer the case.
The president of the camp is keen to find
the nation's future high fliers.
The top three students from each field
will be considered for the role of Junior Syrian Ambassador.
Historically, there have been exchanges with North Korea, Libya
But there are now plans to send the winning Pioneers to Western countries.
Unearthing someone with National Pioneer qualities
is a painstaking process.
The Agriculture Pioneers
are being quizzed on the plants they've nurtured.
Ammar is next to face the music.
After six months of training, it's finally over,
and Imad has found an alternative use for his modelling tools.
But the judges aren't impressed
with Imad's interpretation of a dream house.
Back in Damascus, at Yusif's home they're still waiting for news.
The family had medical tests at the Canadian embassy five months ago,
but since then it's been silence.
It's good news - the Canadians have accepted their application.
It hasn't quite sunk in yet,
but Yusif is soon up to tell his friends and practise his English.
Yusif's extra efforts in his exams weren't quite enough
to make up for the classes that he missed.
He and his Iraqi school friends failed the year.
But Yusif seems determined to make a new start.
Back from the competition, the boys are brought by Waleed
to Pioneer headquarters to find out
if any of the seven have become National Pioneers.
While they wait for the results to be released,
Waleed's got a tough job keeping everyone calm.
Only the names of the winners are listed.
The title of National Pioneer has escaped Ammar for this year,
but one of the other Mleiha students, Zahir,
has become Syria's top National Pioneer in traditional arts.
For Iraqi emigrants like Yusif and his family,
the Canadian Embassy hosts orientation courses.
'In man's division of Mother Earth, one country has been left...'
Canada is 33 times bigger than Iraq.
Winter temperatures can plummet to minus 40.
As a persecuted minority in Iraq,
Christian families are favoured for Canadian visas.
Yusif's family application was sponsored by a diocese in Calgary,
where they'll be heading.
In addition to the joys of Canadian flora and fauna,
Yusif's had a windfall.
His brothers have contacted a Lebanese coach in Canada
to set him up with a trial for Calgary FC.
Before they leave Syria,
Yusif's family are selling off their possessions.
It's a new start for everyone.
Yusif's mum dyes her hair
for the first time since the death of her eldest son.
After five and a half years of waiting in Syria,
the day has finally come for Yusif and his family to leave.
Of the quarter of a million registered Iraqi refugees in Syria,
5,000 were given visas for residency elsewhere this year.
'All right, it's judgment day for you BAC students
'and 10 o'clock is fast approaching.
'You can count on us to be there for you at your high times and lows.'
The twins' father is taking them into school to find out their results.
I'm so afraid, my hand on my heart.
Of course, it's most important moment in my life.
The results are released.
The marks are given out of 270 for arts and 290 for science.
The university entry requirement for engineering was 275 last year.
For English it was 229.
Farah's passed the exam,
but her marks may not be high enough
to get into the English course she wants.
Rahaf's results are also lower than she'd hoped.
She's getting no sympathy from her twin.
The universities are yet to release this year's entry requirements.
Until they do, the twins' futures hang in the balance.
For the school, the overall results have been good,
but head teacher, Amal Hassan,
has just missed out on a student getting 100%.
But despite the intense focus on exams,
for Amal, education is about more than just making the grade.
To find out more from the Open University about schools in Syria,
Five-part series following a year in the life of four schools in Damascus, a high pressure crossroads in the Middle East.
For 40 years, Syria has been dominated by a single party. There's limited political freedom. But here in Damascus life seems to be slowly changing, especially for the next generation. But there is still an immense hurdle for them to cross: the dreaded Baccalaureate Examination. The whole city seems in a state of panic, from teachers to parents and pupils.
17-year-old twin sisters Farah and Rahaf are facing the exams together - success or failure will determine their futures. But their dreams are wildly different. Farah dreams of studying English and exploring the world - inspired by her Satellite TV heroine Nigella Lawson. Rahaf is more anxious - aiming for a more cautious future in engineering. We follow them from revision to results.
Meanwhile, Iraqi refugee Yusif is struggling with his education, as all his attention is focused on the visa he hopes to get that will take him away from Syria. His family is desperate to move to Canada - but can they make it out of Damascus?
In Damascus, it's exam season. And everyone's future is riding on it.